Pets can be such a wonderful addition to your family and home. Many people were pet parents before they became actual parents, and have blended their furry and non-furry offspring together into one big happy family. But having a pet is a huge responsibility, particularly if you have kids. Pets are animals, not toys, and they should be treated with the same respect and kindness you show people. Dogs are one of the most popular family pets around, and for good reason - dogs are incredibly special, and their bond with their humans is unparalleled.
But it's so important that you take the proper steps to insure your kids are safe around your dog, and vice versa. Dogs are awesome, yes, but they are animals, and they can and do bite. Even if you think your dog would never bite your child, you need to be prepared for what to do if that happens, and know the warning signs of a potentially aggressive dog.
Why do dogs bite?
You may have the sweetest, most gentle, most even-tempered dog that's ever existed. But that dog can bite, and in certain circumstances, even the sweetest dogs WILL bite. Dogs most often bite in response to a stressful situation; biting isn't always a sign that the dog is aggressive, but it is their natural and completely normal defense mechanism. All dogs will respond differently to different stimuli or stresses. Some dogs have a very high bite threshold, and can withstand a lot of noise and activity and doesn't get anxious easily. Other dogs have a very low bite threshold, and will bite if they're startled, bothered in even the slightest of ways, or uncomfortable. Some common bite triggers in dogs include loud noises, pain, anxiety, or fear.
What do you do when your dog bites your child?
First and foremost, remove the dog from the room and tend to your child. Perform necessary first aid, including stopping any active bleeding, thoroughly cleaning the wound, and covering it with a bandage. If you don't know the dog (or know whether or not the dog is up to date on their shots), the child was bitten on the face, or you can't stop the bleeding after 10 minutes, seek immediate medical care at the emergency room.
Don't physically punish the dog for biting - remember, the dog was likely using their natural defense mechanism in a stressful situation, and using physical punishment may teach your dog to not give a warning before they bite and could actually increase their anxiety and stress triggers.
If your dog bites your child, you have some decisions to make. You can try to manage the situation from here on out, and eliminate the triggers that caused your dog to act aggressively; this can mean keeping the dog away from kids or other people, restricting their movements so they're never unsupervised, and using a muzzle in addition to keeping them sequestered. Obviously, this can greatly affect your dog's quality of life, as well as your family's. You can enlist the help of a professional animal behaviorist to help identify your dog's stress triggers and implement a program that can include desensitization and counter-conditioning.
If aggression is a new behavior for your dog, this is a good option, as many dogs can be retrained. But it's a time-consuming and often costly commitment. You may also consider rehoming your dog to a family that can provide the necessary adjustments; however, many families wouldn't consider taking in a dog that has a bite history, and it would be highly irresponsible not to disclose that information.
Sometimes, the best (albeit most difficult) outcome involves euthanizing the dog. If the dog has continuously exhibited aggression, and you've not been able to manage their behavior or make adequate modifications to your home to help manage their behavior, your dog may be at high risk for biting again. And you have to do what's best for your family, and your dog.
Teach your children how to behave around dogs
The best defense is a good offense. As mentioned above, dogs react to situations that are stressful by biting, and it's easy for a child to overwhelm a dog and make it anxious or afraid. You should never allow your child to play unsupervised with or around your dog - it doesn't matter if your dog is the sweetest dog in the world. Children should not be allowed to climb on dogs, tug on their ears or tail or paws or fur, try to ride the dog, or put their face directly in a dog's face. Pets should be under the chin, and you should teach your child to stop petting every five seconds to gauge the dog's state. If the dog gets up to leave, teach your child to let the dog leave - they should never grab the dog or attempt to hold onto it. If your child is meeting a dog for the first time, they should always ask first if they dog is friendly, and ask if they can pet the dog. Teach them to extend their hand to allow the dog a chance to smell them. Never allow your child to run toward a strange dog.
It's also important for kids (and adults) to recognize a dog's warning behaviors. Growling, barking, or snapping mean that dog should not be approached. If the dog's ears are lying flat against their head and their tail is curled between their legs, they're likely scared or fearful, and should not be approached. Dogs also tend to look away or lips their lips when they're uncomfortable, which are smaller, easier to miss signs of a dog in stress.